I have finally taken my first trip to a Mary Balogh romance. I’m still surprised when I manage to miss an author completely, but it usually means that there’s a well-liked series with good reviews which is complete that I can dive right into. In the case of Mary Balogh that series is the Survivors’ Club which tells the story of seven people who survived great tragedy (whether physical or mental) during the Napoleonic Wars and formed a tight friendship while they healed for three years away from Society. The first book in the series, The Proposal, held my attention so well and Balogh’s writing pleased me so much that I went ahead and requested the next few books from the library for the coming months and plan to blow through the series during the rest of the year.
The Proposal begins with Gwendoline, Lady Muir, who has seen her share of tragedy. Content in a quiet life with friends and family, the young widow has no desire to marry again. Though, she isn’t the member of the Survivors’ Club: that would be Hugo, Lord Trentham, who scoops her up in his arms after a fall on the beach. He does not, however, view himself as a gentleman; he is a soldier whose bravery earned him his title. Born a merchant’s son who inherited his wealth he is happiest when working the land, but duty and title now demand that he finds a wife. In a very funny scene, a grumpy Hugh alerts his friends in the Survivors’ Club to his plan to find a wife to provide an heir and help with his sister. They tease he will obviously find one the next day down at the beach, and of course the very next day he is rescuing an injured Gwen and bringing her back to the house with him.
Embarrassed, Hugh doesn’t wish to court Lady Muir, nor have her interfere on the annual reunion of the Club. In a fine bit of plotting, this struggle where Hugo and Gwen are given time and space to get to know each other and become attracted but do not wish to be allows the reader to settle into the series. It is an infodump of sorts, but it worked well for me. In lesser hands the first half of the book would have been the end of the plot, but Balogh has more territory she wants to cover. Balogh builds a story around the mental wounds Gwen and Hugh both experienced, punching holes in the “happy” lives they have both created for themselves in the years since their respective tragedies, and analyzing the class differences of the social strata that Gwen and Hugh grew up and live in.
In the second half of the book their two vastly different worlds come together, both will be challenged in unforeseen ways. Mrs. Julien, one of my personal Romancelandia guides, is of the opinion the central theme of many Balogh historical romances is closed and broken people finding new lives and unexpected happiness. In The Proposal I would say that theme lines up exquisitely. Balogh creates a world and a story where over a respectable timeline; two mature adults in their thirties are given a second chance at happiness. And really, who better to be given these second chances than soldiers and those who have seemingly lost everything? I was warmed and won over by the sincere sweetness Balogh brought to her characters, and that while the characters have been through the proverbial wringer, the stories are not mawkish. Balogh shows a deft touch in how she layers and slowly reveals the sorrows of her characters without wallowing in them.
I feel Balogh earned a believable happily ever after for Hugh and Gwen. As they get to know each other, they recognize their first impressions were about expectations. Even at the books halfway point, when Hugh proposes to Gwen and she refuses, they are still functioning on expectations. But then Balogh builds out her narrative and Gwen invites Hugh to court her, if he wishes. I love that they continue to seek each other out, acknowledging they simply want to be with each other even if it is not a natural fit into either of their lives or worlds. It is a novel that stays within its genre tropes, but nudges them with the ways in which the details and specific plot points are placed. The novel grows the universe of Balogh’s books, and I’m interested to see how that universe continues to grow and keep up with the characters we’ve met so far.